Jan. 13, 2016
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan beat Maryland, the third-ranked team in the land and the school many consider the Big Ten favorite, on Tuesday night (Jan. 12) and did so without Caris LeVert, its best player.
That's no small accomplishment.
The Wolverines (13-4, 3-1 Big Ten) beat the Terrapins, 70-67, by getting something from everybody in a big win that should become even bigger come NCAA Tournament selection Sunday.
It was a joyous postgame locker room scene afterward, and the players were hooting and hollering as head coach John Beilein made his way to the team, seated in rows of chairs before him.
"That's a great win," Beilein told them. "It's a team win. I'm proud of you ... I saw a team committed today."
Beilein pointed out contributions that stood out, and he noted the great leadership and production of point guard Derrick Walton Jr. (12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists), and the efforts of Zak Irvin (22 points), Duncan Robinson (17 points) and others.
The Wolverines cheered their teammates as each was singled out, but when the contributions of Mark Donnal (eight points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals) were stated, the players applauded loudest.
"Yeahhhh!" they shouted in unison.
Donnal, seated in the center of the front row, beamed. He appreciated their support and the recognition.
Isn't it something that just two short weeks ago, Donnal was one of the least recognized players on the team. But ever since exploding for 26 points and nine rebounds in the Big Ten opener at Illinois, Donnal has been a changed player.
He has averaged 14.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in four conference games.
He had averaged 3.9 points and 2.1 rebounds in non-conference games.
When asked what Donnal, a 6-9, 240-pound junior forward from Anthony Wayne High just outside Toledo, has given their team in this four-game stretch, Irvin and Walton echoed: "Inside presence."
The Wolverines had none until Donnal began evolving into what Beilein believed he could become all along. Beilein was clearly frustrated by Donnal's lack of production earlier this season, noting that there was a reason he was given a scholarship, and that Donnal had to find a way to show his worth to the team.
"You know, we challenged him several weeks ago," said Beilein, while walking from the postgame press conference to the locker room. "What we found out is that he has a lot of pride right now, and that he needs to be challenged. Some guys don't need that; it's just intrinsic to them.
"But some guys, and it doesn't mean they're bad people, but they need to be pushed. So, we really tried to encourage him that he has another gear mentally and physically. And he's cheating himself and his teammates if he doesn't use that."
Engaging that extra gear was Beilein's challenge, and big man coach Bacari Alexander assisted in getting through to Donnal.
Beilein agreed that finding the correct buttons to push wasn't easy.
"That's not natural for me to really get into guys," Beilein said. "And I have expectations that every guy is going to go as hard as they can every day, and I don't have to do anything more than encourage them.
"But sometimes, they need more than encouragement. So, that's part of coaching and leading."
Donnal was asked about responding to the challenge of his coach.
"You know, I'm just going out there and having fun now," said Donnal. "I'm playing the game I love with more confidence. I'm feeding off my teammates, and bringing them energy, too. I think I've shown that.
"I've gotten a few key offensive rebounds and some stops defensively. I block a shot and keep my man off the boards. I do the little things to help our team win. When you have good games, your confidence builds. And you build off of that."
Donnal finished the first half with a flurry that included two blocked shots on the same Maryland possession in the final 40 seconds, and a tip-in bucket just before the buzzer sounded.
Beilein said Donnal's no longer "over-thinking" on the court, and is simply reacting and trusting his instincts to make plays.
"I was able to get a couple blocks and we drew up a good play and got a good look," Donnal said of the final play of the first half. "Fortunately, I was able to get a tip-in. Momentum was shifting our way."
The Wolverines led, 37-29, at the half. But if Donnal didn't block those shots or make the tip-in, the score could've very easily been 35-31. That was an important four-point swing.
Donnal had a chance to all but put the game away by making a pair of free throws with 14 seconds remaining. He swished the first but the second shot rimmed out, giving Maryland a chance to send the game to overtime with a three-pointer.
With only a few precious seconds remaining and the ball in the hands of Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, Donnal came out to guard him beyond the three-point arc. He moved his feet, spread his arms and stayed in Sulaimon's face as the shot was launched. It hit rim but was off just enough to bounce away as the horn sounded and the crowd erupted.
"It's hard to describe that feeling right then," said Donnal. "It was just huge. Every win's big, but this one is extra special. We talk about quality wins and that was a quality win against a really good Maryland team (15-2, 4-1 Big Ten)."
Beilein stressed that Donnal making his first free throw was critical, but missing the second one motivated Donnal to once again find that extra gear his coach was talking about.
"I think I kind of made up for it," said Donnal. "I switched onto Sulaimon in the closing seconds, and I think I had to make up for it defensively. Fortunately, he missed that shot.
"That was my job -- to get offensive rebounds and make the hustle plays. I did a good job of doing that, and my teammates did a good job of knocking down shots. It was just a great team win for us."
Beilein smiled when that final sequence in the game was recalled.
"He shuffled his feet and did everything," said Beilein. "He played great defense on that one."
Donnal is rising in the big moments, and meeting the challenge.
Beilein said: "Especially without Caris available, he gives us that extra guy who can go out there and guard other people. I think he can be a really good shooter as well. So, it's been a big piece for us to have a big man who can run our offense, and we find him at different times, and he's finishing around the basket."
Diamond Stone, Maryland's 6-11 freshman center, had 22 points and 11 rebounds. But he was covered by other players such as Irvin, and not just Donnal. Stone also had three turnovers, while Donnal had zero.
"He did a good job on Stone and did other things," Beilein said of Donnal. "So, he's evolving as a player right now. He's not there yet with consistency. But I think he's embracing this opportunity he has right now. The coaches believe in him and his teammates need him."
Irvin said, "Confidence, that's been a big thing for Mark. We're always trying to keep him confident, and what he's done in the Big Ten season has been huge. He's a big inside presence. He's believing in himself and making us a better team. When Mark comes in and plays really well with that inside presence, it just takes our team to the next level."
Donnal has provided the big man impact that was lacking last season, and had been again this season until he took the bull by the horns. Nobody is proclaiming Donnal an All-American or All-Big Ten player at this point. But he doesn't have to be those things. However, Donnal does have to keep opponents honest in the paint, and he is doing that.
That extra gear is engaged.